The Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Onnoghen, will have to look for another person to chair the Corruption and Financial Crime Cases Trial Monitoring Committee (COTRIMCO) after former Court of Appeal President Justice Isa Ayo Salami turned down the offer. There are concerns over potential conflict of interests by some of the committee’s members, writes ADEBISI ONANUGA.
To keen observers, that Justice Isa Ayo Salami, a former Court of Appeal president, turned down the offer to chair the Corruption and Financial Crime Cases Trial Monitoring Committee (COTRIMCO) did not come as a surprise.
Many had hailed his appointment because of his antecedents and reputation as an incorruptible judge. It was believed that with him as head of the monitoring team, there would be some headway in high-profile cases that have been hanging in courts.
The Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Ononghen, had on September 27 named Justice Salami as chairman of COTRIMCO after the 82nd meeting of the National Judicial council (NJC).
It was in a bid to strengthen the judiciary, improve its image and ensure that the courts are not used to derail the fight against corruption.
Shortly after his nomination was made public, Justice Salami returned from an overseas trip to announce his rejection of the appointment.
He was said to have met with the CJN to thank him for the honour and explained why he could not accept the job. He also sent a letter explaining his reasons for withdrawing. He was reported to have consulted widely with the Bench, the Bar and his family before making his decision.
According to a report, the eminent jurist opted to stay away from the committee in order not to tarnish his image. Salami also told a national newspaper that he rejected the appointment because it was not in his interest and that he did not need it at this time.
The jurist said the judiciary abandoned him at a time he needed it most, when he was being hounded and harassed by the Goodluck Jonathan administration, allegedly over his refusal to influence the Court of Appeal verdict in respect of the protracted Sokoto governorship legal tussle, in favour of the sitting Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) governor.
It was said that Justice Salami declined the request made to him by the then CJN, Justice Aloysius Katsina-Alu. Salami was also said to have rejected an offer to be elevated to the Supreme Court.
Although the CJN was said to have meticulously selected members of the COTRIMCO, Justice Salami could not be convinced to serve on the 15-man committee.
Members are Chief Judge of Borno State Justice Kashim Zannah, Chief Judge of Imo State, Justice P.O. Nnadi, Chief Judge Delta State, Justice Marsahal Umukoro, and Chief Judge of Oyo State, Justice M. L. Abimbola.
Others are the Nigerian Bar Association President Mr. Abubakar Mahmoud (SAN), his predecessors, Chief Wole Olanipekun (SAN), Mr. Olisa Agbakoba (SAN), Mr. Joseph Daudu (SAN) and Mr. Augustine Alegeh (SAN); Dr. Garba Tetengi (SAN) and Mrs. R.I Inga.
Representatives of Non-Governmental Organisations, Ministry of Justice, Institute of Chartered Accountants of Nigeria (ICAN), as well as the Secretary of the NJC, Mr. Gambo Saleh, complete the committee.
Observers said while Justice Salami may have been comfortable with the judges, he may have had doubts about dealing with the potential conflict of interest involving other members.
Analysts believe Salami may have considered the fact that some of the members may be difficult to control in view of their involvement in some high-profile cases.
However, the six persons representing the Bar are all respected Senior Advocates of Nigeria (SANs) and prominent leaders of the profession, who are expected to keep their personal interests aside.
But, expressing concerns over potential conflict of interest, the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) in a letter to the CJN, signed by its Executive Director, Adetokunbo Mumuni, urged Justice Onnoghen to reconsider the committee’s composition.
The organisation said the composition of the committee was not in consonance with the advice of the UN Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers.
It urged the CJN “to urgently revisit, review, and reconsider the membership of the committee to ensure that members currently handling high-profile corruption cases involving Politically Exposed Person (PEPs) are removed.”
It was learnt that one of the committee’s members is involved as a defence counsel in three charges filed against former National Security Adviser, Col Sambo Dasuki (rtd.), before a Federal High Court, and Federal Capital Territory (FCT) High Court by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), as well in the defence of a corruption charge against former Benue State Governor Gabriel Suswam.
Another member of the Bar in the committee is also said to be a defence counsel to Dr. Raymond Dokpesi , founder of AIT/Ray Power, who is facing alleged corruption-related charges before a Federal High Court in Abuja.
Much as the initiative of the CJN is commendable, observers are worried that there may be conflict of interests among some members of the Bar in the committee in private practice whose firms are defending cases of corruption.
It is believed that there is a likelihood that such members may not be firm enough in recommending stiff sanctions against those who delay cases, and might not be fair in their judgment of the cases they are supposed to be monitoring. It is also feared that such persons may be reluctant to report infarctions to the NJC.
Critics are equally worried that these members may not do the job dispassionately.
To Mumuni, lawyers who have defended and are defending cases of corruption should not be in the committee.
He said such lawyers would be caught between two masters and therefore may not been fair. He said although a lawyer has a right to defend whoever briefs him, it behoves such lawyers to reject other appointments that could lead to a conflict of interest.
“What we found very disturbing is that most of the lawyers we have seen who have handled and who are still handling criminal matters for political exposed persons (PEP) are also part of the committee who are supposed to monitor cases of corruption, who are supposed to work on it and give advice to NJC as to what is supposed to happen.
“We believe that that should not happen because conflict of interest issues will arise. That is why we opposed some of the past NBA presidents who are members of the committee and who have handled and are still handling cases of corruption for PEPs,” he said.
Our correspondent sought to speak with members of the Bar on the committee, but for two days, most of them did not pick their calls, nor did they reply to text and WhatsApp messages sent to them on the likelihood of conflict of interest.
Only Agbakoba responded. He dismissed the presumption of conflict with the mandate of the committee.
Agbakoba said: “No conflict. As a matter of policy we (Olisa Agbakoba Legal) do not do corruption cases.”
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